In 1994, families with multimedia personal computers are expected to snap up 3 million CD-ROM encyclopedias. But only 500,000 to 700,000 print encyclopedias will be sold, perhaps half the number of five years ago.
Families are entranced with getting 20 to 25 volumes of text on a single disk, physically identical to a music CD, for as little as $99, and parents are taking notice of their children's increasing interest in learning from a computer rather than a book.
The disparity in sales is a huge problem for the encyclopedia industry. Indeed, this could be the test case for how digital technology will transform a range of other traditional media such as movie and television studios, newspapers, book publishers, cable TV and magazines.
"This is merely the opening salvo," said Roger McNamee, a technology investor with Integral Capital Partners in Menlo Park, Calif. "The changes are so rapid in electronic technology that you don't have time to reinvent yourself."
The biggest problem for established media companies, McNamee says, is not recognizing new technology and its impact but overhauling their internal structure to reflect the changes.
"I am convinced every new generation of technology requires new business models to exploit," he said.
The two leading publishers of print encyclopedias - World Book Inc. and Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., both based in Chicago - are caught in exactly that quandary.
World Book and Britannica sell print sets of their encyclopedias by direct sales, employing hundreds of salespeople. There's an old saying in the business - "encyclopedias are never bought, they're sold" - reflecting the difficulty in persuading people to buy the World Book at $679 or Britannica starting at $1,800.
The three leading CD-ROM encyclopedias - Compton's Interactive, Microsoft Encarta and the New Grolier Multimedia - cost just $99 after an unexpected price war last year, although buyers must have already invested $1,500 to $2,500 in a multimedia PC.
"We'd destroy the price of the print set" if CD-ROMs were sold in stores at that price, said Jack Dailey, president of World Book Educational Product, the company's sales unit. …